Saturday, 13 November 2010

Mike's Letter from America No20

Mid-term Elections: Why the Democrats lost (and why the Tea Party haven’t won)

The opinion polls before the recent midterm elections reported that the Republicans and Democrats were neck-and-neck. They also predicted – correctly - that the Democrats were about to lose.

Confused? Well, it all comes down to what the media dubbed the ‘enthusiasm gap’. If you ask the electorate as a whole, they rate the Democrats, and Obama in particular, in the high-40s%. But polls of people who said they are definitely going to vote gave the Republicans a clear lead. In other words, there are more apathetic Democrat than Republican voters. Come November 2nd, the GOP was able to get out its vote, while Democrats stayed at home. We are now faced with strong Republican majority in the House of Representatives, and a reduced Democratic majority in the Senate, which means that Obama is seriously weakened for the last two years of his term.

Why did this happen? Well, apparently it’s all our fault. According to the White House it is all because moaning leftists are carping unfairly about the greatest president since FDR. To White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs, we are a bunch of ingrates with unrealistic expectations, while Vice-President Biden told liberals to stop ‘whining’ about the administration. The argument goes that Obama has been saddled with a huge deficit and two wars that he inherited from Bush (true) and an obstructive Republican congressional minority that filibusters everything in sight (also true). Therefore we should all have stopped moaning and worked for his reelection. If we do not muster the same enthusiasm for Democrats as the Tea Party and other assorted crazies do for the Republicans, we will have nobody but ourselves to blame if [insert name of far-right conservative bogeyman here] is in the White House come 2013.

To borrow a memorable phrase from Blackadder, there’s only one thing wrong with this argument: it’s bollocks. The Democrats have given their supporters plenty to be unenthusiastic about. Obama has not just continued but escalated the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He got out of Iraq, but only by declaring that the 50,000 troops still there are not combat troops. The much trumpeted healthcare reform (which Democrat candidates seemed curiously unwilling to defend in their election campaigns) is so timid and peace-meal that even the good things about it have largely not yet come into effect. And it’s not the case that the Democrats could not get things done if they wanted – the anti-gay ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, which fell victim to yet another Republican filibuster in the Senate, would be gone by now had Obama’s own Department of Justice not appealed when it was struck down in the courts.

The best example of the Democrats’ apparent unwillingness to do anything, even to save their own skins, is the issue of tax cuts. Passed back in the early days of George W’s presidency, these had an expiry date attached to them by Congress at the time, and are about to run out. On the eve of the elections, the Democrats hit on the idea of extending them except for people earning over $250,000 a year. This would have undermined the Republicans’ claim that Democrats are the party of high taxes, won them popularity among 98% of the population, and only alienated the top 2% who mainly vote Republican anyway. But instead of doing something both progressive and popular the Dems decided to postpone any vote on the tax cuts until after the elections. With those elections now lost, they are talking of ‘compromise’ on the issue – although having already agreed with 98% of the Bush tax cuts, it’s hard to see how they can compromise any further.

While November 2nd was undoubtedly a bad day for the Democrats, it would be wrong to buy into the media idea that it represents an historic shift to the right. To begin with, less than 40% of the eligible population voted, so the swing of 7% to the Republicans compared to Obama’s victory in 2008 translates in reality to only 3% of the electorate. Many more – some 40 million people compared to 2008 – simply stayed away, disgusted with both parties. Far from being a seismic shift, this was just a typical midterm election, in which voters – rather like British voters in by-elections - cast a protest vote against whoever is in office at the time.

If the Democrats were losers, so were the much-hyped ‘Tea Party’. The majority of Republican Tea Party candidates were beaten, and when they ran against ‘moderate’ Republicans they usually did badly (with the notable exception of Marco Rubio in the Florida senate race, who beat both a Democrat and the ex-Republican governor running as an independent). In Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the official Republican senate candidate – Joe Miller, a Tea Partier – looks set to lose to a fellow Republican who wasn’t even on the ballot. The USA allows ‘write-in’ votes, and Miller’s political fate right now rests on whether the voters were able to spell the name of his rival, Lisa Murkowski. In Colorado, anti-immigrant Republican Tom Tancredo ran as an independent for governor, and while he beat the official Republican candidate, he lost by a humiliating 14% margin to the Democrat.

In straight Democrat vs Republican races, the Tea Party did little better. The most high-profile of Sarah Palin’s ‘Momma Grizzlies’, Christine ‘masturbation is a sin’ O’Donnell, lost heavily in Delaware, as was expected. More seriously for the Republicans, in Nevada Tea Partier Sharron Angle, who was touted to beat the Democrats’ unpopular senate leader Harry Reid, lost by a clear 5% margin. Results like this ensured that the Democrats held on to the Senate more comfortably than any of the pollsters had predicted.

So America is not moving to the right, but do the Democrats get this? Of course not. In those three-way races with Republican ‘independents’ running, the Dems’ leadership often stabbed their own candidates in the back. Florida’s Kendrick Meek was pressured to withdraw by Bill Clinton, no less, while in the election for governor of Rhode Island, Obama failed to endorse the official Democratic candidate – who, to his credit, told the president he could ‘shove it’.

As with all elections, especially the close ones, enormous pressure was placed on the left to back whoever was most likely to beat the Republicans, no matter how right-wing they were. The folly of this strategy was shown most clearly in West Virginia, where Jesse Johnson was running a credible campaign for the Mountain Party, the local affiliate of the Greens. Johnson was never going to win the election for senator, but he was polling well, and getting good media coverage. Come election day, however, voters closed ranks behind right-wing Democrat Joe Manchin, who is in the pocket of the coal companies, and was filmed in one campaign ad shooting a copy of the proposed ‘Cap and Trade’ anti-climate change legislation. Manchin won, and has rewarded the Democratic Party for its loyalty by hinting he may cross over to the Republicans anyway.

The next two years, with Republicans in control of half of Congress, will certainly not be easy. But it is important not to buy into the idea that the country has moved decisively to the right, or the equally dangerous idea that we have to loyally fall in line behind Obama. Left candidates who gain even a half-respectable vote are very rare, but they exist. West Virginia’s Jesse Johnson made inroads because he is an activist, who linked his campaign to workers’ struggles and the fight against the environmental degradation of his state by big coal companies. Those are the kinds of struggles that will stop the Republicans in their tracks.

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